Surprising, unsurprising, and amusing facts about US religious knowledge

The recent Pew survey of US religious knowledge that I discussed on the radio and on this blog, had some features that I want to discuss further.

The things that surprised me about the Pew study were:

  • That 45% of Catholics did not understand what transubstantiation meant. You would think that this would be a big part of their preparation for first communion and subsequent devotional activities. That the number of unaware people is so high suggests that this part of their doctrine is viewed as so absurd that it is downplayed. I mean, really, the idea that the wafer and the wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus because of a prayer and are then consumed seems outlandish and even macabre. It is likely that although the words “This is the body” and “This is the blood” are said during the service, it is not emphasized that people should take it literally.

  • 43% of Jews did not recognize Maimonides as being Jewish. I thought that Maimonides was for Jews what Aquinas is for Catholics, someone they admire as a religious intellectual, whom they can point to when their religion is described as a childish superstition.
  • High level of knowledge about Mormonism. “Around four-in-ten Americans know that the Mormon religion was founded sometime after 1800 (44%) and that the Book of Mormon tells the story of Jesus appearing to people in the Americas (40%). About half (51%) correctly identify Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as a Mormon.” This really surprised me. Why would people know so much about this tiny religious group? Is it because of Mitt Romney’s run for the presidency? The South Park shows?

The thing that did not surprise me was that atheists knew more about religion than Christians. In general minorities in any community tend to be more knowledgeable than majorities because they need that knowledge to navigate the majority culture. Furthermore, atheists usually grew up in religious homes. People who leave a belief structure usually first try to reconcile the conflicts by looking deeper into it to see if it can be made acceptable and only leave when the effort seems futile. So it is not surprising that atheists know more about religions since they usually know what they are walking away from.

The thing that amused me was “Respondents who say the Bible was written by man and is not the word of God get 18 questions right, on average. Those who say the Bible is the word of God but should not be taken literally get an average of 16.3 questions right. And those who say the Bible is the word of God and should be taken literally, word for word, get an average of 14.5 questions right… Holding other factors constant, people who say Scripture was written by men answer nearly three additional questions correctly, compared with those who say Scripture is the word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.” Note that the overall average score was 16 questions right out of 32.

Wouldn’t you think that people who believed that god was directly talking to them through the Bible would read it voraciously and be intimately familiar with what is says? I mean, we are talking about the same god who they say can take them into heaven or thrown them into hell for eternity. This should be a big deal. The fact that they are the ones who know the least suggests to me that one should treat the assertions of biblical literalists with some skepticism. Many of them say they think the Bible is literally true because their religious leaders tell them so but deep in their hearts I don’t think they buy it.


  1. says

    I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish setting. Everyone who referred to Maimonides did so by referring to the “Rambam”. His actual name was Moses ben Maimon. If you add “Rabbi” to his name, then the acronym is Rambam in Hebrew.

    These misnamings may be part of the reason for the poor Jewish response on that question.

  2. ollie says

    I think that many of us became atheists BECAUSE we read the Bible and understood what it said.

    I was raised Catholic but was horrified when I read the Bible for the first time; the wholesale slaughters turned me off completely.

  3. says

    I’ve always wondered that, too. If the actual all powerful creator of the universe wrote a book with a special message just for us, I’d have it memorized backward and forward if for no other reason than just curiosity. Are people that lazy?

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